"Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come." --Chinese proverb
Perhaps you heard. Shaka Smart is continuing his journey at VCU. The athletics department last night announced that "...changes in his contract have been agreed to in principle, and the details are being finalized..."
Last night's windy conditions can only be ascribed to the collective exhale from north and south of the river, and east and west of I-95. Now comes the difficult but rewarding part: continuing to move this program forward, on every front.
However let's take one step back, all the way to August 11, 2009. I wrote a piece about Smart for the website Virginia Sports Now, the first extended profile of the new VCU coach of whom people knew little. It was approximately four months after Smart was initially hired, and two months before his first official practice. The gist: introduce Smart on a more personal level to the #RamNation.
There's old information and stories you know. But the enjoyable part of re-reading this, for me anyway, was uncovering nuance that went undetected in 2009. It showed us we were onto a fearless leader. Forget cheap words like special and different. Smart's confidence in his convictions, and the positivity that nourishes the plan, is his most impressive trait.
Here it is, in its unedited entirety. Enjoy this step back in time. Then, sprint forward.
***His name is Shaka Dingani Smart and the name helps tell much of the story behind its owner.
It is an interesting and unusual name, one that has to have a story. Shaka Dingani Smart didn’t want to know the story. He had to know the story. He made sure he knew the story.
Smart explains that his first name is from the African tribal leader most known for uniting 100,000 Zulus while also being a feared warrior and complex historical figure. The middle name Dingani is from another prominent tribal chief, Shaka Zulu’s brother. Dingani ultimately stabbed and killed his brother.
Knowing is important. Smart is just that way, about everything. He always has been.
Stories abound of the precocious collegiate athlete who, instead of spending time after class goofing off with friends or playing pickup hoops, huddles with his basketball coach to discuss the finer points of the game. It’s the frequent story of how successful coaches laid the early foundation for their coaching careers.
Smart, the new Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball coach, has that story, too. Except Smart did this in the eighth grade.
“I’d stay after class and we’d diagram plays and drills on the blackboard,” said Smart of Kevin Bavery, who would eventually become his high school coach and a great influence on his life. “I don’t know if he enjoyed it or was humoring an eighth grader, but it was something we did.”
Remarkably, that wasn’t even Smart’s first basketball (and intellectual) geeky-yet-impressive moment. As a seventh-grader Smart kept a notebook, but it wasn’t your everyday notebook. It didn’t contain math problems, the names of cute girls, list his favorite college teams or chores that needed to be done at home.
“Zone defenses, maybe 20 different ones, with different alignments,” said Smart with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what some of them were, but I really liked the strategy side.”
Smart took over for Anthony Grant at VCU in April, becoming the school’s 10th head coach in its 41-year history. His ascension to a head coaching job at a successful mid major basketball school at 32 years old is at its core no surprise and, at its most romantic, destined.
Smart coached his brother—five years younger—in basketball and soccer as a youngster. During his teen-age summers, he coached youth leagues. And there was always the notebook and the chalkboard diagrams and love of all things strategic and analytical.
No matter how it was analyzed—by data or by romance—coaching was in the cards for Shaka Smart.
“I loved to play and I wanted to play as long as possible, but I also loved the idea and identity of a basketball player,” he said of his days as a star point guard at Kenyon College in Ohio. “I knew it would be hard to get away from it, and I rationalized it in my mind that the transition would be made easier by coaching.”
That rationalization, or transition or whatever, was paved by the man who recruited Smart to Kenyon, Bill Brown. Smart calls Brown a true father figure, something Smart didn’t have growing up in Wisconsin. His father left when Smart was two years old and was in and out of his life until the age of 17. Smart hasn’t heard from him since.
“We had a relationship that was more than the typical player/coach relationship,” said Smart of Brown. “He left after my freshman season and he explained why and tried to take the high road by telling me it everything would be okay. Part of that was that he told me when I was done playing, I could come work for him. Coaching was always in the back of my mind, much to the chagrin of my professors.”
There is no doubt the world of academia offered up a scowl to rival the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Shaka Smart? Coaching basketball?
After all, Smart was admitted to Harvard, Yale and Brown (among other schools), and turned them down to attend Kenyon College. Smart found school interesting; he could study social issues and weigh them with deep thought and attention. His competitive nature took over those studies and he graduated Kenyon magna cum laude in history while also being a four-year starter on the basketball team and the college’s all-time assists leader. Smart was also named one of 20 selections to the 1999 USA Today All USA Academic team.
Upon graduation, Smart had unlimited choices. But the lure of basketball was greater than any other path. Smart took Brown up on the three-year old offer and began his coaching career at California University (Pa.). True to his competitive spirit and thirst for knowledge, Smart also earned his master’s degree in social sciences while working there.
Smart stayed at CUP for three years and then went to work for Oliver Purnell at Dayton as its director of basketball operations. Purnell was impressed from week one.
“The first time I hired Shaka, I interviewed him for a week,” said Purnell, now the head coach at Clemson. “One of the ways I do that is to make them work a basketball camp (because) lots of guys in a two to three hour interview can’t let you know who they are.
"One of the things that jumped out at me is how well rounded and smart he is. He just does everything well when it comes to basketball. He knows how to teach. He knows the PR. He’s impeccable at speaking to kids at camp or to parents or to the Rotary Club. There’s nothing that you need to do as a head coach that he can’t do, (and he has a) tremendous work ethic and that’s huge. Some guys are blessed with a lot of these things and don’t want to work. He’s blessed with that total package.”
Two more seasons and Smart moved up again, this time as an assistant at Akron. After three years, Purnell again hired him at Clemson.
After two more years with Purnell and one year with Billy Donovan at Florida, Smart impressed VCU Director of Athletics Norwood Teague sufficiently enough to be given the VCU job one week before his 32nd birthday.
“We have landed a gem,” Teague said at the press conference to announce Smart’s hiring. “I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
Ray Mernagh, author of One Chance to Dance, a book chronicling a season in the MAC, spent a great deal of time with Smart in Smart’s days at Akron.
"I called around once to some of his professors from college to see if they remembered him,” Mernagh said. “They all mentioned that they’d talked to him very recently and that he calls them often. He stays in touch with his old professors from Kenyon.
“I think that’s different. Usually you’ll have a guy stay in touch with his coaches (which he does) but it seems kind of unusual to keep in touch with professors. I’m not sure a lot of D-1 coaches can tell you who they had for a certain class in college, but I bet Shaka might be able to name every single one he had.”
Smart credits his mother, Monica King, who raised four sons by herself, with instilling his work ethic. It is the kind of drive and focus that allows people to accomplish great things at a young age, while continuing to be humble and work hard.
“My mom drilled it into us,” said Smart. “It isn’t so much what she said to us, but we could see she worked very hard and sacrificed for us. We learned the value of hard work by watching her, and she taught me that mindset. You have to work to make it happen. Sometimes you have to suspend fatigue and diversions. I guess I’ve always been a little extreme, very focused.”
That focus maturated from zone defense notebooks in seventh grade to published author in college. Smart wrote an article for Winning Hoops magazine about making the most of your players with great work ethic. In retrospect , the irony is almost comical.
Becoming published is one thing. That the magazine published the work of high school coaches and Smart wrote his article while a college student is something different, on many levels.
First, he wasn’t a high school coach. Second, he was talented and intelligent enough to have the article picked up and published. Most notable and telling, Smart was a college student reading a trade magazine about coaching high school basketball.
Clearly, inspiration is behind that kind of drive. Smart daily draws from inspirational quotes. He is a big quote guy, frequently posting some of his favorites on his Twitter account (@coachsmartvcu).
In fact, Smart has a file of inspirational quotes on his computer that stretches more than 60 pages. His goal is to add one quote every day to the file.
Though choosing one single favorite quote is an impossible task, Smart has a dream.
“You know what I’d love to do down the road—I don’t have any idea how coaches have time to write books—but down the road I’d like to write a book with my 10 favorite quotes. There’d be a chapter with each quote, who said it, and what it means to me,” he said.
That time constraint is what Smart has found most challenging since his April hire. It hasn’t slowed him down. When asked about the first few months of being a head coach, Smart’s look turns from contemplative to full-out giddy, a smile overtaking his face that looks like a child who has just been told he could have a second helping of ice cream.
“I love it and it’s gone well so far,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I wished it wasn’t so hectic, but I love it. Nothing has been completely different than I expected, but it has been more intense than I thought, more time consuming. I spoke at Villa Seven about my first 100 days, and I talked about the paradox. You need to prepare diligently, but the flip side is that you can never be prepared for the things you experience.”It had better not throw him. Basketball is the sport at VCU, where no football team exists to draw attention away. The Rams’ flagship program has won three straight CAA regular season titles and been to three NCAA tournaments since 2004. VCU is gaining national attention with its success. Coaches are graded on wins and losses, not feel good stories, and VCU has done a lot of winning in recent years. Success is engrained, and it is expected.
“I wouldn’t say there is pressure,” he said. “But there are certainly high expectations and that is a good thing because I have high expectations for myself and for the team. It’s a good situation when there are high expectations because it raises the level of everything we do.”
Thus far, those expectations haven’t changed the way Smart handles himself. In interviews and sometimes in general conversation, many coaches will resort to the Nuke Laloosh-induced sports clichés, Smart will not. He converses. He takes a second, five seconds, to consider the question so he can give the most thoughtful answer possible.
There is a comfort in the way he speaks, not that he is wise beyond his years or overly confident. It is a calmness and peace that is beyond his years, a leadership trait that will serve him well in the good times and the bad.
Smart is different. The door is open to his office. Instead of being led back and ushered through a closed door, Smart comes to greet visitors. He is the Anti-Grant when it comes to dealing with people.
His intent is to avoid being off-putting; nor boring with answers a PR flak could write. Sometimes, Smart will learn, he will have no choice but to offer clichés, but that time is not now. Instead, he searches for the answer to questions, and that is refreshing.
That he is a deep thinker became evident to his wife, Maya, very early. This guy was different, and not in a bad way.
"Shaka is an incredibly thoughtful person. He’s constantly writing lists, cataloging ideas, documenting experiences, analyzing events and distilling the sum of this knowledge into elaborate philosophies about everything from racial identity to full-court pressure,” she said.
“I learned of this peculiar trait on our very first date at a sports-themed restaurant in Akron. A Cavs game played on the television mounted opposite our booth and a slick play launched us into a discussion of what Shaka calls ‘winning guys.’
“Over Sprite and mozzarella sticks, he ticked off a dozen characteristics of winners that were only superficially related to basketball. His commentary made cursory reference to things like knowing the score, time on the clock and other aspects of the game, but its power came from his deeper observations about human aspirations and folly. I had never heard anyone articulate their value system so thoroughly and persuasively. And I certainly didn’t expect it over the din of fans cheering on the hometown favorite.
“But that’s just Shaka. Nearly five years later, I still get the sense that basketball is merely his chosen medium and he’s really coaching something deeper – commitment, character, compassion.”
Inside Smart’s office, everything has its place. Neat stacks of paper sit on his desk. A notebook is open on the coffee table. The 2009 CAA championship trophy sits just below a video monitor opposite his desk. There are a few pictures on the walls, but not all the walls have a picture. Everything may have its place, but not before its time. Smart has thought about it.
And that open notebook? He’s thought about that, too. It’s open to a page marked up with ballpoint pen. The page is a hand-drawn free throw key and basket, with old school Xs and Os amidst arrows depicting where players cut and screen.
It’s probably the offense to solve one of the zone defenses from his seventh grade notebook.